Exploring Nutmeg: Dark History of the Christmas Spice and My Favorite Recipes
Nutmeg has been one of the saddest stories in history— Michael Krondl, Culinary Historian
In this article, we will explore the amazing, exotic, and tragic history of the spice nutmeg. Join me as we take a look at the origins of this spice, how it was used as a medicament, its production today, how it is best used in recipes. Yes, there are recipes!
Topics In This Article
- Paradise - the origins of nutmeg
- Paradise Lost - the discovery
- Worth Its Weight in Gold (or Oxen)? - the monetary value of nutmeg
- Was it Worth a Slaughter? - the human toll
- The End of the Monopoly - expansion of the cultivation of nutmeg
- The Powers of Nutmeg - why was it so popular?
- What About the Flavor of Nutmeg?
- Nutmeg and Mace (They're Related)
- The Power of Nutmeg as a Curative
East of Java is an archipelago of ten tiny islands. Today a population of about 15,000 clings to these beautiful volcanic rocks that are surrounded by white beach sands and a deep ocean abyss. Warm, crystal-clear waters and colorful reefs abound in marine life; they beckon divers to explore this place, one of the most unspoiled dive spots on the planet.
These are the Banda Islands, and they are covered with nutmeg trees.
In an analysis of position, it seems that the size of this idyllic archipelago was inversely proportionate to its impact on history.
Ancient writings do not disclose who first discovered the riches hanging in the fragrant Myristica trees. But we do know that before the 6th century A.D. nutmeg had been carried to Byzantium—a Greek colony which was later named Constantinople, and later still Istanbul. Arab traders bartered the spice as far west as Rome where it was used not just as a flavoring, but was prized even more for its powers as a medicant and aphrodisiac.
Worth Its Weight in Gold...or Oxen?
Nutmeg was always fantastically expensive—a 14th century German price table lists the value of a pound of the spice as equivalent to “seven fat oxen.” (One might think of it as the Beluga caviar of the 1300's.)
In 1453 the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople; their embargo of this western route forced Europeans to seek a new eastern trade route.
Columbus sailed the Atlantic looking for just such a passage, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and landed on the Malabar Coast (India) proclaiming “For Christ and spices!” He was close, but still so far away. Eventually it was the Portuguese in 1511 who annexed the Molucca islands of Indonesia, of which Banda is a small part. The fortresses established there sealed the deal on a monopoly which would last almost 100 years.
Was It Worth a Slaughter?
In the 1600s the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) seized all but one of the Banda Islands and enslaved the native populace. They imposed the death penalty on any soul suspecting of selling nutmeg to anyone outside of the VOC. When a few islanders dared ignore the threat, the then head of the Company, Jan Pieterszoon Coen ordered the beheading of every Banda male over the age of 15. Within 15 years the original population of 15,000 was reduced to 600.
The End of the Monopoly
But there was still Run Island. That is the one island of the ten that was not under the thumb of the Netherlands. It was the English who controlled it, and for 60 years there were countless skirmishes and truces between England and the Netherlands. Eventually a compromise was reached. The English agreed to swap Run Island for a small trading post in the Americas. Perhaps you have heard of it?—Manhattan.
By 1669 VOC was employing 50,000 people, utilizing 10,000 soldiers and 200 ships, and still was able to pay its shareholders an annual dividend of 40 percent. This perfect, absolute control began to fall apart however when Pierre Poivre, a French horticulturalist (perhaps the Johnny Appleseed of nutmeg?), smuggled out nutmeg seeds and successfully transplanted trees in the French colonies of Mauritius.
The Powers of Nutmeg
Why was nutmeg so highly coveted? One factor was simply the economy of supply and demand—it was very rare. And it was purported to have the ability to ward off the plague—this certainly came in handy during the Black Death. And who knows—fleas seem to dislike the smell of nutmeg, so perhaps there really is something to the “medicine” of nutmeg.
One nut is good for you, the second will do you harm, the third will kill you.— Salerno School (leading European medical school of the Middle Ages)
But, What About The Flavor of Nutmeg?
No other spice has the intense, sweet but musky flavor of nutmeg. Blame it on myristicin—a volatile oil found in other plants (carrots, celery, dill, and parsley) but in over-the-top quantities in nutmeg.
You've probably tasted nutmeg in cakes and cookies, chai tea, or perhaps sprinkled atop a warm cup of eggnog. But if that is your only use of nutmeg you are missing out indeed. The earthy taste of nutmeg marries perfectly with creamy/savory foods as well. Add a pinch to your next squash bisque, a dash in your Alfredo sauce, or any dish with Swiss or Gruyere cheese.
Butternut Squash Pasta Recipe With Parmesan, Nutmeg and Sage
This vegetarian pasta is full of the wonderful flavors we associate with autumn. Roasted butternut squash is caramelized, sweet, and smokey and creates a luxurious sauce. You might think that the small amount of nutmeg in this dish would be imperceptible, but you'd be wrong. It provides a familiar touch of heat and earthiness,
Nutmeg Chiffon Cake
This recipe was developed in the kitchens of Better Homes and Gardens:
- 7 eggs
- 2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 1/4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup cooking oil
- 3/4 cup cold water
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 cups sifted powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- milk (3 to 4 tablespoons)
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- Separate eggs. Allow yolks and whites to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine cake flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add egg yolks, oil, and cold water. Beat with an electric mixer on low to medium speed until combined. Beat on high speed for 4 to 5 minutes or until satin-smooth. Set aside.
- Thoroughly wash beaters. In a very large bowl, combine whites and cream of tartar. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Pour egg yolk mixture in a thin stream over egg white mixture, folding gently as you pour.
- Pour batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Place tube pan on a baking sheet or pizza pan. Bake for 60 to 65 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Immediately invert cake in pan; cool completely.
- Using a sharp knife, gently loosen side of cake from pan. Invert cake; remove pan. Place cake, top side up, on serving plate. Drizzle with brown butter icing (see below). Sprinkle with nuts. Makes 12 servings.
For browned butter icing
In a small saucepan, cook 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat about 15 minutes or until browned. Remove from heat. Place 2 cups sifted powdered sugar in a medium bowl. Stir in browned butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons of milk to reach icing consistency.
Light and Fluffy Carrot Souffles
Don't let the word "souffle" frighten you away from making this dish for your friends and family. The list of ingredients is short and the directions are easy to follow. Carrots are naturally sweet and create a beautifully-colored light brunch or lunch meal.
This smoothie is gluten-free, vegan, and tastes like a gingerbread cookie. Coconut milk and banana make it sweet and add fiber and nutrition. This is a satisfying way to start the day that will keep you going until lunchtime.
Potato Gnocchi with Roasted Squash and Gorgonzola
I created this gnocchi dish for my family a few years ago, and it's the perfect balance of sweet and savory, creamy and crunchy. Prepackaged gnocchi makes this dish simple to put together for your family.
Crespelle Spinaci (Spinach Crepes)
A few years ago I visited my sister Carol in northern Italy. One block from her home was a little shop that sold hand-made pasta. In addition to fettuccini and multi-colored ribbons, they had layered lasagna, plump ravioli, and tortellini en brodo. But the dish that caught my eye was savory spinach-filled crepes. We bought some, took them back to the house, and warmed them in the oven while marinara sauce simmered on the stove.
When I returned to the United States, I vowed to recreate that meal for my family. The blog "Bev Cooks" provided the basics; I adapted Bev's recipe to replicate the meal I ate in Maniago. The link to my recipe is here.
Carb Diva's Carrot Cake
This is no ordinary carrot cake. What makes it so special?
- What a fun way to eat your vegetables
- Supremely moist and sweet with the addition of crushed pineapple
- Applesauce replaces some of the vegetable oil
- Chopped walnuts provide a bit of crunch, flavor, and healthy Omega-3's
- Most importantly, it's my birthday cake!
Nutmeg and Mace (They're Related)
You cannot have one without the other. Spice experts often speak of nutmeg and mace in the same breath because the two spices, while distinct, are derived from the same fruit.
Nutmeg, the rarest of spices, is the stone or pit of the nutmeg tree, Myristica Fragrans; mace is the vividly blood red, lacy membrane that surrounds the nutmeg pit.
Nutmeg has a warm, rich, sweetly pungent flavor that is well suited to cheesecakes and fruit desserts and is essential to classic eggnog. It is available ground and as whole seeds that are brown in color, oval in shape, and about 1 inch long. Many cooks like to grate their own nutmeg, especially for garnishes. Freshly grated nutmeg is usually fluffier than purchased ground nutmeg, so it’s not an equal substitution in recipes.
When dried, mace turns golden amber in color. Its flavor is similar to nutmeg, but less sweet—more intense and pungent. It is used like nutmeg in both sweet and savory dishes. Ground mace is the most common form, and it keeps its flavor longer than most other ground spices.
Nutmeg trees can live to 100 years of age and in one season each will yield up to 20,000 nutmeg pods.
According to Wikipedia:
World production of nutmeg is estimated to average between 10,000 and 12,000 tonnes per year, with annual world demand estimated at 9,000 tonnes; production of mace is estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes. Indonesia and Grenada dominate production and exports of both products, with world market shares of 75% and 20%, respectively. Other producers include India, Malaysia (especially Penang, where the trees grow wild within untamed areas, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Caribbean islands, such as St. Vincent. The principal import markets are the European Community, the United States, Japan, and India. Singapore and the Netherlands are major re-exporters.
The Power of Nutmeg as a Curative
No other spice has the reputation of nutmeg; not only is it heralded as a preventative of the plague, but has also been credited with the ability to reduce the signs of aging, cure impotence, lower cholesterol, reduce anxiety, AND act as a (questionably effective) narcotic. One would have to ingest a Herculean quantity—2 ounces of the stuff—to obtain a high. Keep in mind that an entire cheesecake will probably contain no more than 1/2 teaspoon of the stuff.
Nutmeg oil is an excellent anti-inflammatory. When used with massage it can relieve muscular aches and joint swelling. Small amounts of nutmeg (perhaps added to a comforting cup of tea) can ease nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
© 2015 Linda Lum